ROBINSON TOWNSHIP, Pa. - Navigating the male-dominated world of cars is easy enough - if you're a man, that is. For women it can be a little more ... well, disconcerting.
"The reality is, when you start going head-to-head with men, you can do one of two things," Corina Diehl says in a matter-of-fact, take-no-prisoners kind of voice. "You can kill them with kindness, or you can take a stand, a position, and you own it and they learn to respect that you're making decisions that are in their best interests."
Diehl, owner/president of the Butler, Pa., based Diehl Automotive Group, has come a long way from stay-at-home mother of two to unexpectedly widowed bread-winner responsible for keeping a roof not just over her family's head but also, indirectly, dozens of people working at her late husband's auto dealership in Butler.
NEW OWNER — Corina Diehl said the technology in Chrysler’s new models is amazing. Diehl recently acquired the former Mick’s Chrysler in Robinson Township, Pa. -- Linda Harris
"I went from being a PTO mom, cooking every day and getting to stay at home with my kids ... to having to work every day," she said. "My journey has been really interesting, to say the least."
It's a journey that started in 2007, when her late husband developed a staph infection after doctors used a plate and six screws to reinforce his badly broken ankle. Days later he was dead.
"From a manufacturing perspective, there aren't a lot of female car dealers in the world," said Diehl, who last week added the former Mick's Chrysler in Robinson Township to her holdings.
"It's a tough business, and I was 'the wife.' So when Matt died ... there was this whole process, not to say disrespect, but it was almost like not even acknowledging me. The reality is, we started to go head to head. I lost a couple people when we went head to head. They thought they won and I said 'there's the door.'"
Then came the world financial crisis. Markets tanked and the economy seemed to be sliding into a deep, dark abyss. Diehl remembers a lot of sleepless nights.
"But through the economy, the upturn, the struggles, finding the right people ... now I have this family in Butler, 102 people. Some of them are part time, but I don't have turnover because I view things differently. I pay tops in the industry. I understand that people have families and if their child has a game, I expect them to be at the game."
Automotive News, the bible of the auto industry, recently ranked Diehl Automotive in the top 100 dealerships to work for in all of the U.S. and Canada. "It was all unsolicited, every employee was surveyed," she said. "And I was truly humbled. When you start out and everyone hates you, and it gets to the point where people say, 'hey, she's doing something right' ... that's neat."
Diehl said she hadn't planned on adding to her automotive holdings until her son, Matt, asked her a few months ago if he could join the family business.
Matt, 24, earned his undergraduate degree in business administration from the University of Miami. He's working simultaneously on his law degree at the University of Pittsburgh and his master's degree from Carnegie Mellon University.
"It's a year and a semester away," she said. "But when he decided to come on board, I thought, what if Rachel comes out and wants to be a part of this? I decided I needed two stores, so I actually started calling dealers in the area to find out what was for sale. I actually called dealers who didn't have active children in the business. Mick, who was very good friends with my husband, said he'd sell me his store. We met over lunch, shook hands and made a deal - it was probably one of the smoothest transactions I've ever been through, quite honestly. He's a class act."
The deal closed just about a week ago.
"This is my third day here," she said. "The painters are here, builders are here ... I'm making improvements for them, for our customers. I've already cut hours back here, I told them it was mandatory that they have one day off during the week."
The acquisition brings another 54 or so workers into the fold, most of whom are still trying to adjust to the whirling bundle of energy she brings to the dealership.
"Earning their respect will come through what they see in terms of things like upgrades to the facility, my investment in the community - I'm really big on being part of where I work. I'll deal with contractors from this area, I'll do sports teams for children, I get very active in breast cancer awareness and cystic fibrosis, all the things that have touched my life directly. I reach out and give back. Ultimately, they'll see someone who cares about them, about their kids, about their mother. I take this all very seriously, because I acquired 54 full-time employees here and I have 102 in Butler. Everything I do affects at least 250 people; whatever happens here affects a person who supports his wife, his children, his mother ..."
Already, the dealership is in the midst of sweeping changes: New signs are going up, walls are being moved and removed, and there's new landscaping going in. New furniture and a wall-mounted flat screen will arrive soon, and little touches like an assortment of fresh fruit - will be on hand every day for customers and staff. Soon, the sayings she lives and works by will line the walls, replacing photos of cars there now. She's also planning to revamp the entrance to the service department.
"It's an exciting opportunity for me," she said.
"New people, new places, new things. It's funny how life kind of comes at you fast. I hope to buy another store in the near future."
She said her son, in fact, "ultimately would like to see us with five or six dealerships," which could come in handy when daughter Rachel, now 18, graduates from Villanova's School of Business, where she's majoring in accounting and finance.
For now, though, she's focused on bringing the Robinson store into the fold.
"In Butler, I have no turnover - that's because I care about people; they know I care about the company," she said. "That's my goal here, and I don't think it's an outrageous goal by any stretch of the imagination."
She said she has no doubts about the future of the domestic auto industry, particularly with Chrysler's new, technologically advanced line.
"People need vehicles," she adds. "There's pent up demand probably because people have been holding onto their cars longer."